I should have hated this Medea. After all, I was massively annoyed by the National Theatre production last year, not just because of Ben Power’s pedestrian adaptation, but mostly because it reduced Medea from the status of a demigod to a woman frustrated with her domestic life. Rachel Cusk’s adaptation — though really, this is a new play — doubles down on that, in a way, bringing Medea and Jason into the modern world completely, and into her world to boot. Medea is a writer; Jason, an actor. The metaphysical, the supernatural, the divine: all gone.
But for at least an hour, there is nothing pedestrian about this show. Partly because of the theatrical form Rupert Goold finds for it. Partly because of the extraordinary performances. Partly because of the astonishing, chilling precision of Cusk’s dialogue, ripped from the banalities that come out of real people’s mouths with a merciless accuracy that reminds me of Horváth. And partly because far from reducing the otherworldly to the banal and domestic, this production actually discovers the terrifyingly alien within its all-too-familiar characters.
Euripides’ Medea is a misfit: she does not belong, and once Jason leaves her, she has no connection to Corinth anymore. Cusk’s Medea isn’t from a strange and distant land: she, as a writer, inhabits something of a world of her own. She is a misfit, but not because of where she came from — she doesn’t fit in because of who she is. The chorus says this about her, but we can also hear it in her words: Medea is a poet. Take this exchange between her and Jason, overlapping the script. They are arguing about what a divorce will do to the children.
Medea: “You can’t just send them back to the shop. I’m not a shop. I’m not a shop. You deformed me. You came inside me and you grew there. Twice. While you stayed exactly the same. You touched everything. You got into everything. Even my words have your finger marks on.”
And here’s what Jason says at the same time: “Look, I need to put myself first for a while. What exactly are you accusing me of? It was entirely your choice to have children. Look, I feel I’ve done all I can to make this all right for you. It’s in my interests, for Christ’s sake. It’s in my interests for you to be all right. Can’t you see that?”
Jason’s language is brutally recognizable, familiar, the common self-justifying banality of the modern man. Sickeningly authentic. Medea thinks and sounds only like herself. It’s a revealing passage: where Jason thinks pregnancy is something a woman wants and a man has to provide, no matter how he feels about it, to Medea, pregnancy is the deformation of the female body by a form of male touch. Jason coming inside her literally means what it sounds like: it is an act of alienation, of losing ownership of her own body not to a child (a more common thought), but to him.
The brilliance of Cusk’s script lies in its power to unsettle what is truly alien, though: Medea’s thoughts and images may be unfamiliar, but despite what she says about Jason’s finger marks on her words, they are her own. Jason, on the other hand, for all the recognizable quality of his language, speaks in clichés — he does not own the lines he utters. His voice is pure discourse, unfiltered ideology. Medea may be alienated from those around her, but she is not alienated from herself; all the others, although far more high-functioning than she is, fit in only by virtue of their self-less banality. And the play gives us an object lesson in how they became this way, too, in the various lessons society attempts to teach Medea’s children, lessons in fitting in, in how to think, in how to behave, in how to speak.
Goold finds a remarkably precise theatrical equivalent for this set-up. The space Ian MacNeil’s stage design represents is both eminently recognizable and utterly inhabitable: a modern concrete-and-wood loft, but titled and broken, no surface at the right angle, with a kitchen sink that sits inside a sleek but keeling kitchen cabinet. The show opens with a striking image: Medea standing centre stage, her hair over her face, staring at the floor in silence, as an elderly couple (her parents? Or the “tutor” and “nurse,” as the script has it?) frame her strange figure in a parody of domesticity that’s somewhere between a Gary Larson cartoon, a David Hockney painting, and a British version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (Andy de la Tour’s head in particular could have been cut and pasted right from Wood’s painting). They speak, and neither of them sounds quite right: the nurse/mother a stream of middle-class pieties, the tutor/father a strange mouthpiece for things his mother said to him as a child; and there’s a disturbing undercurrent of pedophilia in the mix, too. It’s chilling and hyper-stylized (Amanda Boxer’s lines all sound like pre-recorded speech — about as close as I’ve heard anyone come in English to the effect of Margit Bendokat speaking Heiner Müller; none of the figures moves at all for the first few pages of dialogue, the father sitting in his armchair, the mother hovering with a plate of chicken, Medea stuck between them, almost motionless). But what is so alienating about the mother and father is their very closeness to the way people talk: they’re off-kilter, but deeply familiar.
That scene sets the tone for the rest of the production. Justin Salinger’s Jason is not as physically abstract as the mother and father, but totally cut off from language that doesn’t sound like ghastly quotations. de la Tour’s Creon and Richard Cant’s Aegeus are both virtuosic riffs on theatrical stereotypes. And the chorus of middle-brow, well-to-do housewives enters to the tune of a slowed-down, distorted version of a Britney Spears song, wielding baby dolls, and sounding like a more middle-middle version of characters from London Road, their dialogue of obscene banalities rendered theatrically fascinating through layering and overlapping. The Britain/Corinth Goold puts on stage is an utterly horrifying place, alienated and alienating, a devastating colony of zombies. And despite the stylized approach, it’s all extraordinarily upsetting and infuriating — the emotional impact is heightened rather than reduced.
The only characters to retain a spark of life are the outsiders: Michele Austin’s Brazilian cleaner, although also something of a stereotype, gets to fantasize about slaughtering her husband and his new wife. The children still sound like themselves, although the younger boy is slipping into assimilation. And Kate Fleetwood’s Medea stumbles and rages through this nightmarish world as an observer (“I know you. I know what you’re like,” she says about the chorus, early on, like a Hal without a purpose; “It’s all right, you can hate me. / Go ahead, feel free. / It’s so much easier than hating yourselves.”), a questioner, and, mainly, a figure profoundly at odds with everything around her. Every scene between Jason and her unfolds the same way: he says these awful, familiar, predictable things — and she cannot fathom what she’s hearing, where he’s coming from, how he could say such things. “I don’t know who you are” is her catchphrase; “I’m the same I’ve always been” is his. Most of their arguments are carried out by phone, while standing right next to each other. It’s an obvious image, but a powerful one.
Cusk’s script is considerably more literal than Goold’s production: stage direction after stage direction has Medea writing, for instance. I don’t think Fleetwood ever actually wrote anything, although there is a laptop on a desk on the set’s upper level. Nor did she have to: the point clearly isn’t that Medea is defined by what does (she writes), but by who she is (she is a writer) and what that does to her place in the world (she sees reality poetically). However, there is a strand of the literal that comes to dominate the play, and that the production ultimately cannot resolve — which is why things go rather off the rails in the last half hour.
Because even as a writer, Medea can’t exist outside of the world. She is subject to market forces, though, in the deal she strikes with Aegeus, she also uses the market to her own advantage. But in locating power, both the power of kings (Creon) and the power of Gods, in the market (and more specifically, in the media), Cusk loses what is so compelling about her Medea: the sense that what is terrifying is not the outside world, but the untameable, the animal, within — that what makes Medea so powerful and frightening is that she has a more direct, more authentic, and necessarily more self-destructive access to her self than any of the other characters in the play. Strangely, in the latter third of the play, Cusk and Goold reduce Medea’s outsider status: Medea turns to the media to enact her revenge, writing a show that turns Jason into a figure of mockery; on stage, the chorus of women becomes an odd coven of priestesses, helping Medea turn the stairwell that leads below the stage into a fiery pit. Medea will eventually take both children down there, though not, it seems, in order to kill them. In Cusk’s script, there is a long stage direction that imagines elaborate business with a letter box into which she crams the manuscript in which she is going to destroy Jason; the letter box falls over and the children spill out, apparently dead, while Jason and Glauce (who is absent from Goold’s production) watch. As the script continues, Medea “sees the boys lying on the floor and is frozen between her desire to destroy Jason/Glauce and her desire to attend to her children.” The symbolism is heavy-handed, and Goold mercifully cuts the scene altogether. But he can’t rescue the play from its lapse into literalism. The letter box sequence precedes the arrival of a messenger who narrates, at great length but without the graphic detail that Euripides’ messenger delivers at the same point, how Medea avenged herself: ruining Jason’s career and second marriage. Goold tries to make this more interesting by dressing the messenger up as a male/female Janus figure — a momentarily arresting idea that can’t disguise that the long speech, in rhyming couplets that don’t help, doesn’t conjure up what Medea has done, but simply narrates and comments on a rather long story-arc. It’s an odd moment, as if Cusk had suddenly remembered that she was a novelist.
In a show that relies so much on a rigorous approach to theatrical form, this lapse into formal arbitrariness signals a dramaturgical problem: Goold can’t find a compelling form for the last third of the play because his playwright loses her dramaturgical focus. As it turns out, Medea does not in fact kill her children. They commit suicide, by feeding each other painkillers, “like fucking smarties.” And she doesn’t seem to care — or so says Jason. The point is obvious enough: the children are destroyed by the parents’ carelessness and desire for revenge. They are collateral damage. But that’s not a terrifying insight: it’s a commonplace. It’s what everyone says about divorce. In other words, the play suddenly becomes as predictable as most of its characters. Instead of doing the only thing that makes sense to her — kill the children in order to punish Jason, who has to remain alive — Medea does what makes a kind of acceptable sense: she takes revenge on Jason and Glauce in a way that ends up hurting the children, too. The death of the sons is an accidental, even unintended consequence of her and Jason’s actions, but it is not the means by which she enacts her revenge.
In other words, instead of finding a mode of revenge that would be in keeping with her radically idiosyncratic view of the world, Cusk’s Medea, in the act of avenging herself, becomes one with that world, reduced to the same banal indifference as everyone else. She uses writing to punish Jason, but in the process, she looses her poetic vision. Perhaps that was the intention; but if so, Goold’s production doesn’t go along with it. In fact, he pushes hard in the opposite direction, visually and in costuming choices appealing to an otherworldly quality that the play increasingly abandons. As the show ends, Medea is as isolated on stage as at the beginning, but dramaturgically that isolation makes no sense: she’s not in fact in isolation anymore. The “gods” find her “quite clubbable,” the messenger tells us: but that doesn’t signal that she isn’t of this world — quite the contrary. Her very clubbability suggests the end of her outsider status, because those gods aren’t creatures of another world either. She hasn’t really done anything especially horrible. She’s only as careless now as Jason was earlier. And that’s not terrifying: it’s just a bit sad. If Euripides’ Medea is a play about the shock, and even the triumph, of the alien, Cusk’s version is a play about the suppression of the alien within by the banal sameness and indifference of the everyday — it’s a play about the triumph of the normal. Depressing, absolutely. Shocking? Not so much.
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